Agents risk all to rescue Jews from Georgia

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 15, 2008

Israeli officials and Jewish organisations have been operating deep inside the war-torn provinces of Georgia this week to seek out and rescue Jews caught up in the conflict.

Israel and the Jewish Agency have also been planning an Operation Solomon-style airlift from Georgia in case the fragile ceasefire with Russia fails.

Close to 600 Israeli citizens who were caught in Georgia as fighting broke out in South Ossetia over the weekend were flown out on Tuesday on three specially chartered planes of El Al and Georgian Airlines.

Officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Nativ and the Jewish Agency arrived at the embassy in Tbilisi - where most of Georgia's 12,000 Jews live - to process the stream of requests for emigration to Israel. These normally take a month to process, but over 90 permits were authorised in one day.

About 30, mainly refugees from Gori, were flown to Israel on Tuesday. Some 200 from Gori, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still unaccounted for. About 250 from Kotaisi and another 200 from Batumi have asked to emigrate, but since both towns are cut off by Russian forces from Tbilisi, attempts are being made to remove them by air or sea.

A handful who lived in the disputed enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were brought to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, in Russian territory.

Before fighting began, there were 19 confirmed Jewish residents of Tskhinvali, the capital of the unrecognised republic of South Ossetia. Their names and addresses were culled from the rolls of a Hessed in nearby Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.

The JC has also learned that, since hostilities began, a pair of representatives from a Jewish aid organisation, who asked to remain anonymous, have been working undercover to locate Jews who may be at risk.

Sitting in a café in Vladikavkaz, one of the agents said: "My parents are Holocaust survivors. So I know what it means to hide in a basement waiting for an angel to rescue you.

"Now, I see it as my job to be that angel for someone else. It's just completing the circle, so to speak."

The pair claim to have managed a great deal of success already. Despite the daily mortar and rocket attacks on the city that continued despite a tentative ceasefire agreement, nine Jewish refugees were successfully evacuated.

The whereabouts of nine more have been established, although they have yet to be removed from the zone of conflict. One 70-year-old woman, her home among the dozens of devastated houses in the Jewish quarter, remained unaccounted for.

"I won't stop until every Jew there is found," one of the agents said. "We're all part of one world community. I would do it for you."

In case the situation suddenly deteriorates, Israel has prepared for an emergency airlift of the type that Israel undertook in 1990 to bring 13,000 Jews from Ethiopia.

"Most of the Tbilisi community are well-connected, local patriots," an Israeli diplomat said, "and they are loth to leave their homes. But if the ceasefire collapses and the Russian forces advance on Tbilisi, we expect thousands to clamour for planes to Israel."

If the fighting makes flying into Tbilisi too dangerous, there is an alternative plan to bus the Jews to neighbouring Azerbaijan and fly them from Baku airport. They are also prepared, in an emergency, to have Prime Minister Ehud Olmert call Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to secure the necessary assurances.

The representatives are worried that if the Israeli presence is too visible, it might lead to anti-Jewish feelings.

Israel is very well connected to the Georgian government which has several Jewish ministers and Israeli firms have been dealing with Georgian counterparts for years.

Until recently, Israel has been selling arms and military training to the Georgian army.

Despite receiving major assistance this week from the government in organising flights and providing security for bussing Israelis to the airport, Israel is now trying to distance itself from the government. "Despite the Russians agreeing to the ceasefire," a senior Israeli foreign ministry official told the JC, "the feeling is that they are planning to humiliate Sakaashvili further and that they will not stop until they have toppled his government."

An impending change of government, together with Israel's reluctance to anger the Russians who control the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews, forces Israel to deal carefully with both sides.

Last updated: 4:31pm, August 14 2008